Injuries Force Team to Rely On Youngsters

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 30, 2008

This weekend, the Washington Nationals made two personnel decisions. Taken together, they attest to another, broader decision -- an increased willingness to turn a major league starting lineup into a tryout ground.

Injuries to Lastings Milledge and Shawn Hill opened two spots, one at center field, one in the rotation. Though the Nationals have been ravaged by injuries, they've often filled the vacancies with players with neither the youth nor talent to qualify as prospects.

That changed when the team pulled center fielder Roger Bernadina, 24, from Class AA Harrisburg and pitcher Collin Balester, 22, from Class AAA Columbus. Bernadina will be the regular center fielder and leadoff hitter. Yesterday, he went 1 for 5 with a run scored. Balester, who makes his major league debut Tuesday, will be allowed several weeks of starts -- minimum -- to flash the potential that prompted Baseball America to rank him as the organization's top prospect.

"This is the kind of year, with the injuries we've had, if you're going to break young guys in, let's do it now and we'll take our lumps now so we don't have to take them next year," General Manager Jim Bowden said.

Bowden said that all the injuries have revealed only one bright spot. "We have opportunities to have people like Bernadina and Balester [get] chances they wouldn't normally get at this level."

Both players followed similar tracks to the majors, using their first months of this season to correct flaws. Bernadina, whose hitting has always lagged behind his fielding and speed, looked "overmatched" in spring training, Bowden said. But at Harrisburg, he batted .325. Two weeks ago, Nationals scouting director Dana Brown traveled to watch Bernadina play and later told Bowden he was ready.

Balester entered the season with a win-loss record that didn't match his pedigree. So Bowden, during spring training, issued a challenge. "If you want to get to us," he told Balester, "you have to win. I don't want to see .500 down there with great stuff. What does that do for me?"

Balester won. Since May 2, he's gone 8-1 with a 3.90 ERA.

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